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Speaking skills for starting out in your career: presentations and speaking up

How to deliver a clear and engaging presentation

The ability to speak clearly and engagingly is an invaluable employability skill, and has recently been reported to be one of the most lacking skills in pandemic-era graduates. 

In any workplace, speaking is one of the key skills early careers professionals need to master, adapting use of tone, expression, and gesture to match the circumstances of the situation. In a formal speech or presentation, it’s also useful to be able to use the most appropriate visual aids to make your point, and be able to prepare these visual aids for yourself. Selecting and using the most effective facts and examples also play an important part in helping you to make your point. 

If you’re starting out in your career, and find the prospect of leading a presentation at work daunting, or haven’t had much exposure to the workplace due to hybrid working, or few opportunities to gain work experience, this article will support you to develop this vital employability skill. You can build this to increase your confidence in being able to deliver a clear and engaging presentation. We’ll also share some top tips and ideas to help you practise speaking clearly and engagingly in your future presentations.

How can I speak more engagingly?

Speaking is defined in the Skills Builder Universal Framework as the oral transmission of information or ideas. You can use the Framework to get better at speaking, as it outlines the steps to develop this skill from beginner to mastery.

  1. Build facts and statistics into your speaking

Proper use of facts and statistics provide evidence that adds truth to your argument, so you’ll be more effective in convincing people of your point. When used well, facts and statistics can also be illuminating – they might help someone to learn something new, and humans respond positively to learning new things. Incorporating facts and statistics into your speaking can also build confidence in speaking up in meetings or communicating your ideas with colleagues.

However, any facts or statistics must be relevant to your argument or what you are saying – otherwise they become distractions. They should also be accurate, or you can quickly lose the trust of your listeners, and they stop listening to what you are saying.

Using facts and statistics effectively is all about identifying the right moment when you are speaking, being careful to use them sparingly.

One simple structure that is widely used for sharing an argument is:

  • Opinion
  • Rationale
  • Facts or Statistics
  • How those justify your opinion

An even simpler model is to use: [Opinion] because [Facts or Statistics]. Listening to mentors, colleagues and managers when you start out in your career is a great way to seek out good practice in using arguments to make your point. 

  1. Choose the right tone

Tone refers to the way that something is said. Adapting your tone can be an important employability skill – and is especially valuable in hybrid settings where gesture and other non-verbal signals can be more difficult to pick up. Tone varies by several dimensions:

  • Pitch (how high or low someone is speaking): Try to keep your pitch from low to medium. Low pitch can make you appear calm and confident, whereas a high pitch gives the opposite impression. Altering your pitch throughout your talk can help to provide variety that makes listening more interesting. 
  • Tempo (how quickly someone is speaking): Try to speak at a moderate pace. Speaking slowly gives the impression of calm and control, whereas speaking too quickly makes someone seem panicked and chaotic – it can make your speech hard to follow. Somewhere in between will maintain your audiences attention, but make sure to include pauses so that they can think about what you have said. 
  • Volume (how loudly or quietly someone is speaking): Speak at a volume that makes it easy for the listener to hear you, but not too loud that they are uncomfortable. You can change your volume over time – for example, if you want someone to pay close attention or lean in, you can slightly lower your volume, or, speak more loudly to show passion and place emphasis on what you’re saying. 
  • Intonation (where the up and down patterns of language is placed throughout a sentence): Generally, a downward intonation (going down at the end of a sentence) adds gravitas and authority to what is being said – it sounds like a statement rather than an invitation for discussion or disagreement.

  1. Adapt your facial expressions appropriately 

While it’s important to focus on what and how you’re delivering what you want to say, another important presentation skill involves adapting your expressions as you are speaking.

Expression is how your face communicates information to your audience. By moving our faces in different ways, we convey a range of emotions from joy to disgust. As a general rule, you should think about what emotion you want your listeners to feel, and try to ensure that your facial expressions support that. What this looks like might differ for different people.

If you’re sharing information, you will want to appear interested and enthused. However, sometimes you want to evoke a different response – perhaps you want them to be shocked, surprised or embarrassed. In each case, how your facial expression changes can influence how they feel about the words you are saying. 

If you’re speaking for an extended period, like presenting an idea or participating in a meeting, you should consider how to create variety through what you’re saying. For example, you might want your audience to be initially puzzled by a problem you pose, then surprised by some facts that you share, then excited when you show a solution.

  1. Use appropriate gestures

A gesture is a movement of the body which means something. Generally, gestures are also a way of conveying emotion but we are often less aware of them than we are of our facial expressions.

Good presenters will usually not turn their backs to their audience, and use open gestures with their hands, as well as use eye contact to engage the audience, though this will vary for different speakers. With many firms employing hybrid working, your gestures, such as eye contact are still as important as delivering a presentation in a room. As with facial expression, sometimes you’re looking for a different emotional response from your audience and it can be helpful to model that with how you use gestures.

  1. Use visual aids effectively 

A visual aid is something that helps to illustrate what is being said, for example, an image. Giving your audience opportunities to use other senses will help them to take in and recall what they have heard. Bear in mind that anybody in the audience with a Visual Impairment may not be able to see the visual aid, so ensure that this is something that doesn't give information that they will miss out on by not being able to see it.  A reasonable adjustment here would be to talk through what the visual is showing and explain this.

While visual aids can be hugely helpful when you’re speaking, it’s easy to make simple mistakes which stop visual aids from being effective. 

Some tips for using visual aids effectively are:

  • Make sure the listeners can see them – if you’re planning a longer speech, and you want to use visual aids, it will be frustrating for any listeners who can’t see them.
  • Make sure the technology works – if you're going to show slides or a video clip, then you should practise with it and make sure that the technology works before you start your presentation. 
  • Make sure the visual aids are relevantyou should always choose your visual aids to support what you are trying to say, rather than just because you think something looks good.
  • Make your visual aids attractive and appropriateit’s worth spending some time to get these right. Slides or images that look poor quality will make your listeners feel that your whole speech is of poor quality. Similarly, pictures, diagrams, charts or graphs that you make should be clear and well produced. Be careful when thinking about the fonts or clip art you might choose to use, and make sure they are appropriate to the setting. 
  • Think about variety – do not just use the same visual aids over and over again. Instead, you could combine a model with a graph, and then some images at relevant points.
  • Think about the size of your audience and the contextsome visual aids will be more appropriate in some settings than others. If you’re just speaking to one person, putting up a big presentation might seem strange. On the other hand, a small model will not be useful if you’re presenting to a big room of people who might not be able to see it.


  1. Avoid making these common mistakes when using visual aids

When it comes to visual aids, there are some easy traps to avoid:

  • Introducing a visual aid too soon – as soon as you’ve shown a visual aid to the audience – whether it’s a picture, a film, some words or anything else – they will immediately look at it. Make sure you only introduce the visual aid at the point that it supports what you are saying. 
  • Reading your visual aids for longer presentations, it can be helpful to add critical points or bullet points on a slide to help listeners to take in and understand what you are saying. Keep these brief and use plain language so they are as accessible as possible. Adding lots of text to read out on the slide can disengage your audience. Generally people can read faster than you can speak, which means they will read before you have said what you wanted to, and then stop listening to you. 
  • Using too many visual aids it can quickly become overwhelming for an audience if there are too many visual aids, with too much information to absorb. This can be confusing rather than helping provide a clear explanation. 

Here are some ideas to help you practise speaking clearly and engagingly in your future presentations:

  • Watch a TED Talk online  about a subject which interests you. Note the use of facts and examples. Did each example add interest? Were there any that you thought unnecessary?
  • Make a list of all the types of visual aids you could use in a presentation or when speaking to others.
  • Identify two visual aids that you have not used before, for example a PowerPoint or graph and learn how to create the visual aid. Ask someone to teach you or use the guidance available on how to use Microsoft PowerPoint or other presentation programs.
  • Watch an online presentation or talk about something you enjoy or pay specific attention to a presentation by a manager at work. List the visual aids used and decide whether you think it added to the message or was a distraction? Was there anything you would recommend to the speaker to improve how they use visual aids?
  • Agree to give a talk or presentation when the opportunity next arises at work. Plan the content of your talk and then consider which points would benefit from a visual aid. Choose the most appropriate visual aid for each point. After the presentation ask the listeners for feedback about the number, style and appropriateness of the visual aids. Would you change anything if you repeated the presentation?
  • Plan a short talk for a meeting on a subject you enjoy. Annotate your planning notes with places where you think a particular tone, expression or gesture would help to engage the listener. Have you included much variety?
  • Watch an internet talk by someone who is enthusiastic and excited about their subject or job: for example, Ore Oduba, Mary Berry, Chris Packham, Stacey Dooley, James Cracknell, Samira Ahmed, or any number of TED Talks. Watch the talk without sound and observe their gestures and expressions. Listen to the talk. Do they engage you?

Explore the steps to build speaking skills in the Universal Framework.

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